King Cakes

bywater bakeryKing cakes are one of the things I love about living in New Orleans. For those of you not from around these parts, here’s the Wikipedia definition of king cake, which I think sums them up pretty nicely: The most simple, said to be the most traditional, is a ring of twisted cinnamon roll-style dough topped with icing or sugar, usually colored purple, green, and gold (the traditional Mardi Gras colors) with food coloring. King cakes may also be filled with additional foodstuffs- the most common being cream cheese, praline, cinnamon, or strawberry.

king-cake4When you put the filling in, king cakes can be a pretty decadent treat. So they tie into the overarching themes of Mardi Gras pretty well.

And that’s a cool thing about Mardi Gras—the final celebration before the austerity of Lent. When you’ve grown up with it, you’ve likely experienced a full spectrum of uninhibitedness. From king cake parties as a kid, where you might overload on sugar; to going out to parades as an adolescent, where you might yell a little too loud with your friends, begging for plastic trinkets. Those are some of my best memories of Mardi Gras, and they all predate any excessive alcohol consumption or other forms of adult debauchery that followed in subsequent seasons.

Now that I find myself on the far end of adulthood, I partake less in the debauchery, and spend more time waxing philosophic. Which I think has always been my nature. Much like I did when I was a kid, I dig the seasonality of it all. King cakes are a limited-time-offering, with that limited time starting on the Epiphany, or King’s Day, always celebrated on January 6 in the U.S. And concluding with Mardi Gras, which is a moveable date. (Mardi Gras is roughly forty-one days before Easter, which is the reason why it moves around. Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon of the Spring Equinox.)

So here we have this cake, which you can reliably acquire in New Orleans as of January 6, but how long it will be available depends on whether the full moon happens late or early in the month. Since the first full moon of the Spring 2017 season falls a full three weeks after the equinox, we have a long Mardi Gras season this year. Thus a long king cake season.

I love how it all underscores the capriciousness of time. We want to have these prescribed lengths of time for things, which makes sense for something like Lent. It always begins on a Wednesday, and ends the Saturday before Easter. But when it comes to indulgences like Mardi Gras, and super sweet brioche-style cakes, the season can be long or short—it all depends on the rhythms of the moon. That feels appropriate for encouraging an untangling of inhibitions.

Anyway—the whole reason I was inspired to write about king cakes was my friend Chaya and her new spot, Bywater Bakery. In addition to being a great writer, Chaya’s also a phenomenal chef. (You can find out a little more about her here—she’s pretty impressive.) She’s introduced new varieties into the king cake arena this season, and they’re amazing.

So I’m pretty fired up that this year, I have two more weeks to sample these king cakes. And reflect upon the phases of the moon, a lessening of inhibitions, and Mardi Gras traditions, new and old.

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